More social dialogue at all levels is needed to promote health and safety at work

The pandemic has made it even more urgent to address the new challenges for health and safety at work. Enhanced social dialogue is required to guarantee better standards in teleworking and, more generally, in the digital environment

"Social dialogue as a tool to promote health and safety at work" will be the subject of a new EESC opinion drawn up at the request of the forthcoming French EU Council Presidency (first half of 2022).

The French authorities feel that European initiatives have so far failed to provide sufficient impetus for social dialogue aimed at health and safety at work, and the opinion is being drawn up against this backdrop. We need to discuss the new challenges posed by demographic, digital and environmental changes, said Franca Salis-Madinier, rapporteur for the opinion, at a public hearing hosted on 17 November 2021 by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

The pandemic has contributed to a sharp jump in the number of people working from home - from 12% in 2019 in the EU ("usually and sometimes" according to Eurofound's research) to at least 20% and even as high as 65% (according to various preliminary estimates for periods with different social distancing rules). So what will happen after the pandemic ends? We see a strong desire to stay with the hybrid work variants, especially as the potential for teleworking jobs is even greater than we are seeing during these COVID-19 times, said Tina Weber from Eurofound.

The greater freedom and autonomy are advantages that teleworkers might appreciate, but among the downsides is the involuntary extension of working hours (by blurring the line between work and home life). This can lead to increased eye health problems, musculoskeletal disorders, stress and burnout. At the same time as enforcing EU standards by recording working time, for example, there is an urgent need to find solutions that do not infringe people's privacy, because overly intrusive supervision is another psychosocial health risk.

This is the context surrounding the issue of 'the right to disconnect', which in some EU countries is regulated by legislation or company-level agreements (sometimes guidelines, sometimes collective agreements). All of this is a task for social dialogue within the EU, although at the EESC public hearing, no conclusion was reached as to what kind of common framework should be established for individual companies, sectors, countries and the EU as a whole.

Worker participation is indispensable for the trust and effectiveness of health and safety solutions. The time of the pandemic and the search for sanitary solutions for workplaces in social dialogue has shown this. It is often better to do this, however, not through new legislation but through consultation at company level. Especially for small companies, one-size-fits-all does not work well, argued Rebekah Smith from BUSINESSEUROPE.

In turn, Claes-Mikael Ståhl from the European Trade Union Confederation underlined that the role of the Member States and the EU should be to better finance and resource collective bargaining on health and safety (and the training of health representatives in companies).Research shows that there is a direct correlation between the structured representation of workers on health and safety and the actual level of health standards, said Stahl.

The French authorities see the EESC's forthcoming opinion as a contribution to the EU's work under the Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work (2021-27) recently announced by the European Commission. Clémentine Braillon, from France's Ministry of Labour, Employment and Economic Inclusion, representing the French Presidency, highlighted the promotion of solutions for workers with disabilities as one example of what France could contribute from its experience in the field of social dialogue.

Moreover, as another Ministry of Labour representative, Lucile Castex Chauve, explained, the French government intends to deal firmly with the challenges posed by carcinogens within the framework of common solutions for the Union. The planning of measures to prevent cancer, their implementation and then their correct observance definitely require social dialogue. Dialogue and collective agreements are efficient tools to address such risks, said Ms Castex Chauve during the EESC's hearing.